Ron Kurtz has had two very different careers: he ran a successful high-tech materials corporation for 35 years, and now he represents the estates of two of America’s eminent photographers. His second career started in the mid-1980s, when Kurtz bought the archive of Berenice Abbott, an American photographer renowned for her 1930s black-and-white photos of New York City.
“When you have more than fits on the wall, you are a collector. If you have more than fits in a drawer, you are a dealer,” says Kurtz, who kept some photographs, donated some, and eventually started to sell them.
Today his photography company, Commerce Graphics, deals in the work of Abbott and of Arnold Newman, a well-known portrait photographer whom Kurtz met through Abbott. Kurtz had met with Abbott briefly a few years before he bought the archive, but after he purchased it, the two became quite close. “Each year at her birthday in July we, along with others who were close, would gather at her lakeside house in Maine to celebrate with her,” Kurtz says.
Kurtz has brought the work of Abbott and Newman to MIT through shows at the MIT Museum and through donations of thousands of rare photographs. His strong ties to the Institute were forged when he first earned a management bachelor’s degree, then returned for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in materials science and engineering. Today he is a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation and a member of several visiting committees. “Everything I ever got in this world is the result of what I got at MIT,” says Kurtz, who earned a Bronze Beaver Award in 2002. He now lives in New Jersey with his wife, Carol.
Kurtz began collecting photographs soon after he left graduate school. “I started with an Ansel Adams portfolio,” he says. Back then the purchase was an extravagance, he recalls. “I had no money and a pregnant wife–$150 was a month and a half’s rent.”
Things changed for him in 1997, when he sold his company, Kulite Tungsten, which made tungsten products for aerospace and medical use, among other applications. That allowed Kurtz to focus on Commerce Graphics, which he had been running out of the back of his factory for several years.
As photography becomes increasingly digital, Kurtz sees both positives and negatives. Digital technology increases the possibilities, but it has profoundly changed the art form, too. “Something is lost by not being able to go through the process of camera to film to negative to print,” he says.